Monthly Archives: July 2009

Comment is Free: We need a harder line on voting reform

I’ve written a new piece on Comment is Free about the prospects of electoral reform. The gist:

The one thing Labour can’t afford is to have the Lib Dems on the other side of a referendum on electoral reform. With that in mind, Clegg should be hardening the Lib Dem line on electoral reform. Incremental change is simply not good enough at this time of political crisis; if Clegg doesn’t wish to become Brown’s patsy, he needs to get used to saying so. The “pragmatic” line of going along with AV or AV+ on the basis that it would be a step in the right direction, which has been received frontbench wisdom for the best part of the decade, needs to go out of the window.

Full article here.

While I’m here, can I also recommend to you Matthew Sowemimo’s latest article on Lib Dem Voice about the Lib Dem manifesto?

Oh what a lovely war!

It is possible to forgive Gordon Brown a lot. It is possible to argue (and, however incredibly, there remain people within the Labour Party who do) that Brown really does believe in things like justice, liberty and democracy. The problem is, the argument goes, that the perfidious media and electorate won’t let him promote an unashamedly progressive agenda and so he is forced to do the best under the circumstances.

If you squint a little bit, you can just about see where this argument is coming from. Sure, inequality and attacks on civil liberties have increased over the past 12 years, but look at the minimum wage, tax credits and the human rights act. These may have been ineffective, but at least his heart’s in the right place. Right?

To know the true mind of Gordon Brown one must do more than just scratch the surface. But some statements reveal rather more than he would perhaps like to be shown. Not every statement needs to be spun. Such is the case with Gordon Brown’s tribute to Harry Patch, who died over the weekend:

I think it’s right we as a nation have a national memorial service to remember the sacrifice and all the work that was done by those people who served our country during world war one and to remember what we owe to that generation – our freedom, our liberties, the fact that we are a democracy in the world. Those men and women did a huge amount and it’s right that he have a special commemoration of what they have done.

I can’t really better Martin Kettle’s rebuttal of the claim that we can attribute “our freedom, our liberties, the fact that we are a democracy in the world” to the successful outcome of World War One but I have a few thoughts of my own.

Firstly, the adventurism of the first World War killed off the first attempt to build a welfare state almost stone dead and it was not revived for another thirty years. By the twenties, many of the post-1908 gains were being subjected to means tests and being curtailed. The means to pay for it – a land value tax on wealth (not incomes – a real threat to the landed classes that they have managed to stop in the decades hence) – was quashed before it could even be properly introduced. The momentum for House of Lords reform was lost. Some might argue that what we got in exchange was women’s suffrage, but you could equally argue that the war merely postponed it.

Of course, it is quite possible that none of these things would have happened even if the war hadn’t happened. Certainly, no-one living in the early 20th century can be under any illusions about how excellent the establishment is at stifling reform. But one thing is unarguable, and that is that the first World War lead directly to the second. The men and women who fought that war really were fighting for our liberty (although that too can be overstated), but they shouldn’t have had to. And the millions who were slaughtered by the Nazis died senselessly. It is hard to see how any of this would have happened if we hadn’t chosen to bankrupt Germany in 1918.

This isn’t to dismiss the bravery of men like Harry Patch and Henry Allingham or to somehow present them as traitors and war criminals in the way that the far left and the greens are determined to present our troops today. But they didn’t fight “for” liberty and democracy. If it can be said that they fight for anything it was the last hurrah of British imperialism, something which we can be grateful is now dead. We need to remember and commemorate them because it must never be allowed to happen again. For Gordon Brown to recast history in this way on the day that the last witness to events has passed away is nothing less than grotesque. It speaks volumes about Labour’s own enthusiasm for military adventurism and demonstrates his unsuitability to the job of Prime Minister.

Get the 411

My old landlord has launched a new project which I have to admit I am very impressed with.

The 411 Show is a new online magazine show, mainly about independent and unsigned music acts, but with an interest in other things such as independent filmmaking and modern art. There’s even a bit of politics.

The second episode came out last week and features, as well as some great music, Sunny Hundal from Liberal Conspiracy talking about Form 696 and artist Sarah Maple.

You can watch the first part here:

Go here for the second part and all the accompanying videos including live sessions and a selection of imaginitive short films by Robin King.


“Open Source Politics” in Totnes?

The Tories’ open primary experiment in Totnes intrigues me. Douglas Carswell describes it as “credible attempt to create a new system of open source politics.”

I am a bit dismissive about their experiments with “primaries” thus far (most of the Tory candidate selections which have been labeled as “primaries” have in fact been caucuses). The reason for this is that I’ve seen very little evidence that they have done anything significant to increase participation. Certainly, non-members have been able to participate, but it has generally been in the hundreds. Swapping one self-selecting group for another doesn’t amount to much. Doubling, even trebling, participation in candidate selection is almost meaningless in the face of such mass alienation from the process.

The Totnes experiment is different because all 69,000 voters in the constituency have been sent a ballot paper. At a stroke it means that the major problem inherent in the caucuses – that the people who turn up could be dominated by a single group of entryists (whether they are a political, ethnic or religious grouping) and thereby select a candidate that is less likely to find favour amongst the wider electorate – is gone at a stroke. There certainly will be Labour and Lib Dem members participating in this ballot, but the majority of people who do will belong to no political party. The winning candidate will therefore have already won a constituency-wide test. All things being equal, that will give him or her a significant advantage over the other candidates.

Could this system be used to revive political participation nationwide? I think it could, yes. If the top three parties were to do this in every constituency, the way elections are fought would change dramatically. For one thing, I suspect it could do a lot to increase ethnic diversity. As an alternative to all-BAME shortlists – widening participation instead of narrowing it – it has to be a winner. But it would also work in more subtle ways by making seats less safe.

Let’s say a really strong Lib Dem candidate were to emerge in a safe Labour stronghold. Would people, having got to know that candidate in the primaries, automatically revert to their tribal loyalties come the election itself? More than that, the candidate him or herself would be able to use the primary to build their own supporter base. We do see this sort of upset occur in the US in a way that is much less common in the UK.

There are questions that need to be answered. For one thing, to what extent should candidates be free to campaign during the primary contests? I would imagine that in the case of Totnes, this being the Tories, candidates would have a pretty free hand. But how do we prevent the system from giving the rich such a major advantage, thereby leading to a less diverse Parliament? As with UK elections, for the system to be rolled out nationwide we would surely need some kind of spending limit.

There is also a question about where all the candidates will come from. The big barrier, certainly in the Lib Dems, would be the candidate approval system. The party simply doesn’t have enough approved candidates to have a even a two-way contest in every single constituency. Should we lower the bar for candidate approval, in essence allowing any party member to stand? If so, how would we prevent non-liberals from getting selected as the Liberal Democrat candidate? Indeed, one of the main things we see in the US more than the UK is a convergence with the two main parties ending up almost indistinguishable in terms of broad political philosophy – certainly at a local level (nationally, things inevitably become more distinct, but even so the Democrats and Republicans amount to little more than two sides of the same coin). There is a danger that this will lead to vision-less, pandering politics. Politicians will be more responsive to the electorate, yes, but will be unable to actually say what they mean because they will be in the thrall of every single opinion poll.

Despite all that, I’m sure that these problems could be overcome and no doubt some will argue I have overstated them. Fundamentally, the higher the level of political participation, the less pronounced they will be (for example, if there were more people engaged, less wealthy candidates would have an easier time fundraising). However, there is one problem that I can’t see getting resolved any time soon: the cost.

I’m surprised there has been so little discussion about the cost of the Totnes primary. It must be costing the Tories around a pound per constituent to hold this contest. Even if they had managed to bring it down to 50p, that is still about £35,000 to hold just this primary. For a national party that is chickenfeed, but to roll it out nationwide would cost at least £20 million. Even the well-funded Conservatives will struggle to raise that amount of money ON TOP OF the amount they need to raise for electioneering locally and nationally (not to mention the costs of each candidate in the primaries). Where US states use open primaries they are at least part funded by the taxpayer, but the Tories would surely be ideologically oppose to such a subsidy. One thing that would be unarguable is that this form of state funding of political parties would do more to entrench political parties and make them a part of the state than almost any other version. You certainly couldn’t fund every single party to run primaries in this way so what would your cut off point be, and how would you prevent it from entrenching the established parties at the expense of everyone else?

Assuming you didn’t fund open primaries out of taxpayer money, and couldn’t afford to hold one in every single constituency, how would you choose which seats got a primary and which seats didn’t? Limit it to target seats? In which case, the whole “open” nature of the system would be undermined. It would only be open in places where the election was already competitive. In safe seats, the electorate would remain just as shut out as ever. A more imaginative approach would be to fund open primaries in safe seats held by political opponents, but it would be a risky strategy (and it is certainly not the approach being adopted in Totnes).

What I can’t see, with the best will in the world, is how such a system can improve on having single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. STV works by effectively combining a primary with an election – you don’t just get to choose between parties but between candidates within parties on the same ballot paper (of course this depends on the parties themselves playing ball and providing the electorate with a choice, but there is some evidence in Scotland which suggests that the parties which did field a broader range of candidates did better). You don’t end up with a group of candidates who all argue for the same thing because the system recognises that the electorate is not an amorphous whole but a group of individuals with a diverse range of opinions. Instead of all elections being won by the lowest-common-denominator, minority views are allowed representation as well. And the enormous cost is saved, to be spent on other things or even not raised in the first place.

Ultimately then, while I can see that open primaries have real merit, it is hard to see how even the Conservatives can afford to roll them out on anything like a national basis. Without safeguards, they could just entrench plutocracy and lowest-common-denominator politics. It is hard to see how this can be a real practical solution to a nationwide malaise. And everything the system purports to do can be done much more cheaply and simply by changing the electoral system. The question boils down to whether you see the future of UK politics as lying in competing parties setting out broad visions for how the country should be better or narrow communitarianism. For better or worse, that is the debate we should be having about electoral reform, not an argument about reform versus the status quo.

The trouble with “Rennardism” (clue: it isn’t the leaflets)

I find myself in danger of ending up on the wrong side of an important debate. I’ve written before about how Chris Rennard’s departure as Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats is a chance for the party to rethink how it campaigns and last week speculated whether our heavy dependence on “ground” campaigning makes it harder for us to find a more diverse selection of candidates. I hope however people don’t think that I agree with the more crass analyses out there suggesting that the party’s problem is that it delivers leaflets.

Irfan Ahmed suggests we can just switch to emails and achieve the same thing for less. Charlotte Gore asserts that “the most attractive candidate to the electorate nearly always wins irrespective of resources.” Stuart Sharpe seeks to prove this with graphs. But I have to say that when it comes to winning tactics, I’d much rather have Costigan Quist, Stephen Tall and especially Neil Fawcett running my campaign.

Regarding Stuart Sharpe’s “proof,” one is compelled to ask: where is your control group? Of course there isn’t one, nor is there likely to be one since no party would risk the political cost of sitting out a by-election just to satisfy this little theory. There are several factors at play in how a political party does in an election. The number of leaflets delivered is just one of them. But to assume that all you need to do is look at a) where the parties where doing according to public opinion, b) how many leaflets each party delivered and c) the result and extrapolate the marginal effectiveness of delivering a leaflet is simply laughable.

To quote a cliche, Coca-Cola spends literally billions on advertising each year yet doesn’t noticeably increase its market share. Is that billions of dollars wasted? No, it is the price they pay to retain their current market share. In Norwich North, the Lib Dems had several factors pointing against them: the Tories were in a strong second place locally and doing extremely well against Labour in national opinion polls; anti-politics feeling is at an all time high yet and the beneficiaries of that were always going to be predominantly UKIP and the Greens; the Lib Dems’ base in the city was concentrated in the south and thus all local resources up until that point (with the exception of the Broadlands bits) had been concentrated elsewhere; both locally and nationally, the party is established and no longer a repository of protest votes. Despite all that, I can honestly say the we did remarkably well. There was no anti-Labour squeeze to speak of and the Lib Dem vote held up remarkably well despite all those Tory squeeze leaflets.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’m completely uncritical. I remain of the opinion that branding Rupert Read an “extremist” was counter-productive as well as unethical, despite the fact that the more I read about the man the less I like. I do question whether the result was really worth what it cost to achieve it (notwithstanding Neil’s sound points about training and development); the main reason the party invested as much as it did in the campaign was that Broadlands and Norwich South are much stronger prospects and a bad result would have harmed the momentum in both of those seats. This preoccupation with the Greens, too, seemed to be more about their comparative strength in Norwich South: if they had leapfrogged us in the North it would have been a story that Read and his comrades could have used to split the vote in the South and keep Charles Clarke in power. Now they have a bad process story of their own to contend with. Whether that local advantage was worth the substantial national investment is a moot point but one which, frankly, I’m not in a terribly strong position to draw any real conclusion about.

By contrast, the idea that we won Leicester South, Brent East, Romsey, Dunfermline and Fife West and all those other past victories (never mind all those other close second places) due to the relative merits of our respective candidates is, with no insult whatsoever intended to the candidates themselves, completely laughable. They weren’t won by leaflets alone either, but the leafleting was a sine qua non.

No. If you really believe that the problem with “Rennardism” is rooted in our on the ground tactics, you are profoundly missing the point. Far from it, in my view the problem is that this form of campaigning is too successful and has become an end in itself. The problem is that the party has become far too comfortable in making these little gains here and there and more or less abandoned anything like a strategic vision – for either the party or the country – altogether.

There’s plenty of “vision” in the party’s pre-manifesto, published this week, but the launch of this was an interesting case in point. Just like last year’s Make It Happen, the launch was not terribly well handled, with Nick Clegg making some ill-advised comments and local parties and candidates left ill-prepared to deal with any enquiries about the new initiative. As I said earlier in the week, I strongly suspect that the two are inter-related: if someone was spending time working out how local candidates were supposed to be presenting new initiatives like this, they might come to different conclusions about how they are presented nationally.

One of the reasons I suspect the party centrally no longer provides pre-release briefings of major launches like this to candidates is the effective merger of the parliamentary party’s press operation and the federal party’s. Since then, however much better our press work has been (and generally I think it has been), it has been running to serve the front bench agenda and not really focusing on the wider party’s needs at all. During the leadership election, I remember hearing Clegg talk a lot about the need to invest more in a regional media strategy. It hasn’t happened.

The party has become good at producing these professional looking single-issue websites like A Fresh Start for Britain but it isn’t clear what campaign objectives they are supposed to achieve. Where’s the sign up box? Why no interactivity? Why no tools to make it easy for people to disseminate it via social bookmarking, twitter or even email? Why did the PDF version take days to appear and then only in a print-ready 5mb format? The whole thing, along with Take Back Power, screams afterthought and sourcing out.

My time on the party’s Federal Executive was mostly spent fighting trench warfare over things like getting decent funding for the Campaign for Gender Balance. I have no doubt that those battles in turn have delayed any progress we could have made to encourage more BAME candidates. Some things like the decline of Liberal (Democrat) Youth (and Students) (never mind the nonsense that happened earlier this year; the writing has been on the wall for years) required the party to take remedial measures, but those remedial measures never happened – mainly because they would have cost money. Yet I still maintain that all of these would have been sound investments for the party – both financially and in more intangible ways – in the longer term. What they would have cost however was the equivalent of a handful of target seats in the short term and thus were always resisted.

I have my concerns about how the party campaigns on the ground. I do think that the party is relatively complacent about unethical behaviour (although this is exception and not the norm) and I deplore the pettyfogging culture that it engenders. But in terms of what works, the last thing in the world you can criticise Lord Rennard on is his tactical nouse. Distrust anyone who tells you otherwise; they simply don’t get it. It is his strategy we need to move beyond.

UPDATE: Liberal England makes the very sage point that it is “Rennardism” wot won it for the Tories in Norwich North.

The state of the Lib Dem blogosphere

Stephen Tall has issued these questions for Lib Dem bloggers to answer over the weekend and so I thought I’d try to bash out my responses before dinner (UPDATE: not quite):

What are the greatest successes of the Lib Dem blogosphere?

Lib Dem Blogs remains a very powerful spine, although I personally find it is gradually being replaced by twitter as a tool for following blogs I know I already like. But its power as a means for helping good bloggers get quickly established (Mark Reckons and Himmelgarten Cafe are two recent examples) is as strong as ever.

The greatest single achievement in the Lib Dem blogosphere was the aforementioned Mark Thompson’s post about marginality and the MPs’ expenses scandal. This is a rare example of a blog post that actually helped set the national agenda.

What are we, collectively as bloggers, failing to achieve?

We aren’t a collective and so to a certain extent I don’t recognise the validity of the question. As I’ve said before, I don’t consider my blog to be part of a movement. It exists for me to get things off my chest and to advance my own, personal agenda, nothing more.

But if I was to put my party hat on for a second, the answer I think would be that we fail to really engage in much of a cross-party debate. We talk too much amongst ourselves. I think this is true of all party blogospheres so I don’t want to belabour the point, but it does mean that the average punter who finds themselves reading, say, a bunch of Labour blogs has very little chance of crossing over.

The other, moderate, failure has been LibDig although I am contemplating having another bash at reviving it. I remain convinced that social bookmarking is a potentially powerful tool for promoting the best of what’s out there in the internet and that sites like Digg are too vast for people to navigate their way through, but I don’t know what the answer is.

How does the Lib Dem blogosphere compare with those of the Labour, Tories and other parties’?

LabourList appears to have settled down into a decent Labour answer to Lib Dem Voice. Con Home is more of a party hub than either of them will ever be, but is less readable to people of a non-Tory persuasion as a result.

For all Labour’s problems with the Red Rag controversy, and notwithstanding its predecessors like Lib Dem Watch (which it looks like would have been Red Rag’s direct descendant had it ever got off the ground in terms of a great many of the people involved with it), it is the Tories who have elevated partisan attack blogging to an artform. There is little disputing the success of this type of blog in terms of readership, but I’m not that fussed about our failure to compete in this area.

How helpful is blogging as a campaigning tool (are there examples of it making a real impact)?

Mark Thompson’s achievement, above, aside, I’ve seen very little evidence of them being useful for setting the agenda outside of the rather incestuous blogosphere. I think their potential for marshalling the activist base however remains unexploited. It is notable that blogs were used by the party to encourage people to attend the Norwich North by-election to a much lesser extent than they were used in, for example, the Henley and Ealing Southall by-elections. Whether this indicates that the party centrally didn’t consider those earlier attempts to be particularly successful or just had other priorities, I could not say.

What do you think the next year holds in store for the Lib Dem blogosphere?

I predict that political blogging in general will degenerate into tribal name calling in the way that it did in the run up to the 2005 general election. Before then, blogging was much more cross party, albeit much much smaller. Personally I ended up all but giving up on reading blogs myself during that period although a large part of that was to do with the fact that I was semi-banned from blogging myself and had a target seat to run with a London-Glasgow commute to go along with it.

It will also become less tolerant of internal dissent, although to a certain extent even the most awkward of us tend to be less critical during general elections anyway. Honestly, it will be awful – part of me is tempted to just sit it out like last time.

That aside, I suspect Lib Dem Voice will go from strength to strength and may well find itself having a pivotal role during the election campaign and the post-mortem afterwards. Freedom Central, the Welsh Lib Dem ‘hub’ (presumably this particular hub isn’t based underneath Roald Dahl Plass), has the potential to grow into something significant. The Scots really need to get their own version up and running.

In terms of blogging however, the most interesting period will be after the general election, not before. The post-election period last time produced the Apollo Project, the Liberal Review and eventually Lib Dem Voice itself. I suspect that there will be an ideological battle being fought within the party after the election, with the classical liberal/libertarian Liberal Vision thinking the debate is about them versus the Social Liberal Forum, and the Social Liberal Forum thinking it is a much more nuanced debate about where the party makes the balance between economic and social liberalism. But fundamentally, the debate will be much broader than that and we can’t guess who the main actors will be.

The other factor will be technology. Neither podcasting nor vlogging have caught on in the UK political blogosphere; with a new generation getting older and attracted to politics by the general election, will we see this change in 2010?

True Brit (Captain Britain and MI13 Spoilers)

The final issue of Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain and MI13 hit the shelves this week. I came to this series late – just in time for the final storyline in fact – but I’ve bought the first two published collections, as well as Cornell’s “prequel” Wisdom.

I really liked this series and appreciated Cornell’s agenda in it. Cornell, lest we forget, is unusual in terms of British comic (and sci-fi) writers in that he is a practicing Christian. Far from this meaning he is a Bible-bashing bigot with an obsession with genitalia and morbidity, his outlook can be quite refreshing to the usual brand of cynicism and paranoia. He wrote Xtnct for the Judge Dredd Megazine, he admits, partly as a reaction against the Pat Mills tendency to push his own political world view forward (I have to admit that Xtnct went a bit over my head but it wasn’t helped by the month between episodes and the lack of consonents).

In the case of Captain Britain and MI13 his quite transparent agenda was to make a superhero comic that was distinctly British whilst still being optimistic. Over the past three decades there have been numerous attempts to write the iconic British superhero, but they have all leaned towards a certain amount of deconstruction. Even writers who do the optimistic widescreen version of US superheroics well, like Grant Morrison, have tended to go adopt the Alan Moore template whenever they write about characters based on this side of the pond; compare the UK-based Invisibles Volume One with the US-based Invisibles Volume Two for a perfect example (for that matter, compare Moore’s Marvelman with Tom Strong).

I don’t want to go on too much about the specifics of the series or I will degenerate into fanboy-wank (he writes after deleting about four paragraphs of said toss). Instead I just want to focus on two aspects.

The first is the character of Faiza Hussain and her wielding of the sword Excalibur. Every time a gay character appears in comics it gets a blaze of publicity, and MI13’s own guest appearance of Gordon Brown certainly attracted some attention. So I’m amazed that this decision to make a Muslim character wield one of the mythical “symbols” of Britain didn’t garner any headlines. It may just be that it missed a slow news cycle – certainly news of DC’s decision to do a joint project with Kuwait-based Teshkeel Comics seemed to excite people. But I like to think it is a positive sign amidst a sea of depressing news about the rise of the BNP etc. Having said that, perhaps that is a bit Guardianish of me. I well remember getting irked at the way that the Sun reviewed Bend it Like Beckham as a film about a girl who wanted to play football while the Guardian agonised about what it said about Multicultural Britain Today. The Sun is not always wrong.

The second is a great bit of dialogue in the final issue which I think sums up Britishness better than most attempts to do so (you can call it Englishness if you’d prefer, but I think it goes wider). Captain Britain is talking to Faiza’s father, and academic who has been made a vampire by Count Dracula (long story). Freed from Dracula’s control, Hussain is understandably somewhat perturbed by his newfound status:

Dr Hussain: Is there a home for me there, though? Captain, I don’t want my wide and daughter to see me like this. To have to deal with —

Captain Britain: But what’s the alternative? Give up? Dr. Hussain, I think your life from now on is going to be a very British compromise — living with something terrible, dealing with it in domestic terms. Tragedy right up against sitcom, in a way other cultures don’t really get. I think if anyone’s going to understand all this, is going to want you to stay around and get through it, day by day — with all sorts of awkward conversations — it’s your daughter.

Hussain: You’re right. So I shall. You know I could murder a cup of tea.

I don’t know. It certainly ticked me anyway.

The series isn’t perfect, although the too-neat tying up of loose ends in the final issue is almost certainly mainly due to the series’ forced cancellation than anything else. But it is well worth checking out.

Nick Clegg’s far, far, far, far, far, farce over tuition fees

Oh God. Here we go again. Remember all that nonsense last year when Nick Clegg started claiming that the Lib Dems were about to unveil a package of £20 bn of cuts – the “vast bulk” of which was to be passed on in the form of tax cuts? Remember how, after an ugly row at party conference, he first capitulated (explaining that by “vast bulk” he meant “teeny tiny amount“) and then ended up dropping the whole charade about finding these enormous spending cuts in the first place? Remember how that left so many people feeling, not least of all myself, feeling demoralised? Well, it seems to be about to kick off again. And once again it is due to that nasty habit of over-clegging, ahem over-egging, the pudding.

The party’s pre-manifesto – A Fresh Start – has been launched today. Let me start by saying how happy I am with the overall pre-manifesto document. It is very sensible. It’s priorities – a green economy, fairness and cleaning up politics – are spot on. And it’s recognition that hard choices are ahead and that the party should not increase overall spending is surely correct. I even agree that we will have to go into the next general election making fewer spending commitments than we have in previous years.

There is a clear danger in flagging such a situation up however, and that is that it will immediately lead to speculation about what will and what won’t be cut. Now, you can choose to dampen such speculation or you can encourage it. The FPC played a delicate game, being careful to avoid the suggestion of a hierarchy of which cuts are needed and avoiding the sort of language which would suggest there will be a bonfire of the spending plans. Clegg, for whatever reason, has chosen to ramp such language up.

In his interview in the Independent yesterday, he made such posturing a centre point. Now, we can blame interviewer Andy Grice for the nonsense about the party having “traditionally had a long shopping list of policies but been less convincing about how it would pay for them” (not true, for the past three general elections at least, our manifestos have been fully costed and vetted by the IFS) and for providing a remarkably specific list of spending commitments that will be axed. But we can’t blame him for statements such as:

Our shopping list of commitments will be far, far, far, far, far shorter.

You don’t repeat a word five times by way of emphasis unless the point you want to make is that your default position on every commitment will be to cut it. Even George Lucas only used “far” twice (small mercy that, at least, it was no more than thirty). And you don’t frame your argument in terms of “shopping lists” unless you have contempt for those spending commitments. This doesn’t sound like making tough decisions at all; it sounds like making the incredibly easy decision of just throwing everything into the bin.

We are perilously close to “vast bulk” territory once again. How to respond to this clear difference in emphasis between Clegg and the FPC is tricky: unlike Make it Happen where the central problem was a poorly worded document, here the problem is purely the spin on which the leader is putting on it and its potential implications further down the line. This deserves chewing over.

But since Clegg has fired the starting gun for a debate about priorities (according to Grice: “Mr Clegg wants to kickstart a debate that he claims Labour and the Tories are denying the voters as they squabble over headline departmental budgets in a Whitehall-speak that leaves ordinary people cold” – fine Nick, let’s debate). Let’s get one thing well and truly out of the way first: the commitment to scrap tuition fees has got to stay.

To be honest, I’m not interested in revisiting the debate about whether we should scrap fees or not. That debate happened within the party, in excrutiating detail over a two year period. In Harrogate this spring, conference voted overwhelmingly to retain that policy. Despite the fact that neither the motion nor any amendment called for dropping the policy, speaker after speaker queued up to talk about the need to retain the policy. It was possibly one of the most emphatic non-debates I’ve ever witnessed.

The fundamental problem here is that right now, our target seat candidates have nothing they can say about tuition fees. After Harrogate, the party’s campaigners breathed a collective sigh of relief: finally, after two years, they could get on with promoting one of the party’s most popular and distinctive policies once again. Those plans were dashed by Nick Clegg today. Can you really afford to put that leaflet sitting in your garage out? What is Liberal Youth going to say at this autumn’s freshers’ fairs? Won’t you just be attracting criticism from your opponents if you do so?

I’m the last person to say the party should only adopt policy on the basis that it is distinctive and popular. I remain stubbornly wedded to the idea that policies should be the right thing to do as well. But in this case the policy most certainly is right and the reason for getting it reaffirmed earlier this year (something which almost certainly should have happened 12 months before – there is no excusing the delay) was precisely so we could get on and campaign for it.

What’s more, does anyone really believe that either conference or the Federal Policy Committee will not insist on the manifesto having this specific commitment in it? I suppose it is just possible that the broad coalition of people in the party who oppose tuition fees might suddenly decide that they will take this lying down, but I wouldn’t put much money on it. It is slightly more possible that this policy might get dropped after an enormous and highly damaging debate resulting in swathes of resigning candidates and members – many of whom will do so from the conference stage. But the most likely result, by far, is that the party is going to go into the next general election with a firm commitment to scrap tuition fees.

I write this as someone who, in Lib Dem terms, isn’t that wedded to the policy. I certainly support it but in my own awkward way would – in an ideal world – like to explore other options as well. The strength of support for this policy at Harrogate this gear caught me by surprise. Surely no-one who attended that conference (or who knows who currently sits on the Federal Policy Commitment) can be in any doubt that this policy will almost certainly be retained?

That being the case, I have to ask, why revisit the debate again? In what way is it valuable for the party to have yet another internal discussion over the next few months instead of just getting on with campaigning?

There are other policies that you might want to make special pleading for and we almost certainly will end up with a somewhat longer “shopping list” than Clegg’s Independent interview implies, but our anti-tuition fees policy is different because it is such a central campaigning priority. The party supports this one with its feet. By contrast, we’ve never been this far away from a likely general election date with a fully costed and priotised policy on pensions and benefits for the elderly for example, and so it is reasonable for this package to remain at least somewhat up in the air at the moment. Tuition fees is different because all parties are committed to supporting pensioners in one way or another and so the party’s policy can’t hope to be a key dividing line; by contrast you are either for or against tuition fees and in the case of both Labour and the Tories you are very much in favour of them. You won’t find a clearer dividing line (with the exception of electoral reform and even that might change before polling day).

And can we seriously contemplate scrapping this commitment whilst also arguing, as stated in A Fresh Start, that “We need to ensure that the next generation does not pay the price for the mistakes made by government and bankers today”? Promising to not force the next generation to pay for our mistakes via tax hikes will ring pretty hollow if we insist they have to pay the same amount in the form of graduate debt. What charlatans we would sound!

My generous analysis of this situation is that Nick Clegg has simply been blindsided and didn’t anticipate that this failure of communications would happen. Part of the problem however is the way the party communicates. Up until a few years ago, we used to be able to take it for granted that whenever the party made a new policy statement that a new pack, providing local parties and candidates with promotional materials, a standard press release and outlining possible lines of attack and their rebuttal. This simply no longer happens and I am at a loss as to why. One of the useful aspects of such a pack would have been, I suspect, that the party’s press office would have been forced to think through how exactly this new announcement was likely to play. Clegg sounded horribly ill-prepared for some fairly underarm bowling from Eddie Mair on PM this evening, even if the Evan Harris factor did somewhat take him by surprise. Once again, I don’t think this is being thought through properly.

There are two simple solutions to this immediate problem over tuition fees. The first is for Nick Clegg to make it very clear over the next few weeks that the policy is safe. The second is for the party to carry on campaigning as if it was regardless. The two can potentially be complementary and mutually reinforcing, but if the former doesn’t happen it is all the more crucial that the latter does take place. Waiting until April 2010 to get this message across will be a farcical wasted opportunity.

The BBC, Jo Swinson, and a bloody great big stone wall

To recap, readers may recall that, two months ago (it really was that long), I got my knickers in a twist over an article in the Telegraph about Jo Swinson MP and her expenses. I – and others – complained to the Telegraph – as well as the Guardian and the BBC. We got a response from the Telegraph and a clarification from the Guardian, but nothing, nada, zip, from the BBC.

Last month, I complained again to the BBC, not just about the specific complaint but the way the BBC handles complaints. That full complaint can be found at the bottom of this piece. Again, for a month, I heard nothing. I phoned them last week to be told that the complaint had been referred and that they would do a little chasing. I was about to start escalating things when this afternoon I finally got a response from the BBC from a Mr Jolly (presumably not this one, and certainly not this one [or even this one]):

Mr Graham,

Thank you for your e-mails and please accept my apologies for the delay in responding. I’ll come to the issue of our complaints process shortly but first your substantive complaint. I have asked our political editor for a response, and this is his reply:

The piece you refer to was where we reported the “Claim” by the Telegraph and, where appropriate, the MP’s “Response”. The Telegraph said receipts submitted to the fees office by Ms Swinson, for reimbursement, included the items. They said she had denied claiming for the eyeliner. We reported both those facts. They published the receipt on their website. Ms Swinson had told them that the eyeliner was not claimed for but had been on a receipt with other items claimed for. The Telegraph said only cosmetics appeared on that receipt.

The page you refer to is a summary page and it is not possible to go into all this detail on it. The redacted version of the expenses claims from Parliament fails to clear the matter up as the receipts in question are redacted so it is not possible to compare the value of the claim with the receipt submitted. There is no doubt about the tooth flosser however as Ms Swinson wrote that herself on to the claim form and it was not redacted when published.

As for our complaints procedure, the page you selected to make your complaint was the General Feedback webform. You should have received an automatic response which said: “We are unable to answer all e-mails individually due to the large amount of feedback we receive.” There is a separate form for complaints, which would have been a better place for your correspondence. This would then have ensured a reply. We would disagree that the options offered on the Newswatch page are confusing; it’s really for senders to determine the nature of their correspondence. To have all e-mails going to one inbox where they are guaranteed a response would mean us replying to several hundred e-mails a day from our department alone. So, your e-mail was read, but it was felt that no action was needed to alter our story and no reply was sent.

Your second complaint was made via the BBC’s central complaints website and was forwarded to us the following day, and then passed on to the political team. I can only apologise for the delay in responding; that is down to us.

Best wishes,

Ian Jolly
News website

This, sadly, is the sort of response I thought I’d get. A terribly polite explanation about why I am wrong in every single way and should just learn to love Big Brother Auntie Beeb. I was further irked to read at the footer:

This e-mail (and any attachments) is confidential and may contain personal views which are not the views of the BBC unless specifically stated.
If you have received it in error, please delete it from your system.
Do not use, copy or disclose the information in any way nor act in reliance on it and notify the sender immediately.
Please note that the BBC monitors e-mails sent or received.
Further communication will signify your consent to this.

So not only is this email confidential, but if I reply to it I am “signifying my consent to this” – this is a fascinating example of Kafka-esque logic (don’t think about it too hard as it may give you a headache. Anyway, without further ado, I have sent them this response:

Dear Mr Jolly,

First of all, I have to say that I do not accept that this email is confidential. There is no reason for it, we are discussing things that are in the public domain and it would appear to go against the principles of the Freedom of Information Act which the BBC is subject to. I will be publishing your response, and my reply, on my blog.

Secondly, thank you for eventually replying to this. I would be happy to accept your apology if you could do me the courtesy of explaining a) why such an extraordinary delay and b) what specific action is being taken to prevent such delays in future.

Working backwards in your email, for the record I did NOT receive a response from your complaints website when I submitted either complaints. I did check my spam box at the time, and have just done so again. Have you checked to see if this facility is in fact working?

You state that “We would disagree that the options offered on the Newswatch page are confusing; it’s really for senders to determine the nature of their correspondence.” I was taken to that page upon clicking the option for “General comment For comments, criticism, compliments and queries about the BBC News website or coverage of an event or story.” At that stage, technically, I was asking for a correction; I wasn’t issuing a complaint.

Instead of merely asserting that you are right and I am wrong, what research have to carried out to ensure that people are not being confused by this? Are you willing to concede that if such research has not been carried out, it should be considered in the interests of providing a good public service?

In terms of the complaint itself, you state that “the page you refer to is a summary page and it is not possible to go into all this detail on it.” This may be so, but that is no excuse for inaccuracy. Your piece – and your response – IS inaccurate. You state that “the Telegraph said receipts submitted to the fees office by Ms Swinson, for reimbursement, included the items” but the Telegraph article (whatever other issues I may have with it) goes to great length to make it clear that NOT all the items on the receipts were submitted for reimbursement.

As for the argument that this subtle nuance could not be included due to the need for brevity, the Guardian article (which they have accepted WAS misleading, but for other reasons) stated: “Cosmetics included in her receipts” – that is strictly speaking accurate. You could amend your article along similar lines of:

“The Dumbartonshire East MP, the youngest in the Commons, submitted receipts to the Fees Office for a number of items including eyeliner, a £19.10 “tooth flosser” and 29p dusters.”

That is 29 words, as opposed to the original which was 26 words. If you are really worried that this makes it too long, you could remove “the youngest in the Commons” which is entirely irrelevant (and could be inferred as innuendo in any case) and would save you 5 words.

What I find most outrageous of all however is your refusal to even take action on changing the name of the constituency. There can be no argument here. Her constituency is called East Dunbartonshire or Dunbartonshire East. There is a seperate constituency called Dumbarton. Do you think it is unreasonable of me to surmise that given your failure to even make this correction, you aren’t taking this complaint seriously?

There are a number of questions there. However, given how long it has taken you to reply to my formal complaint, I feel it is reasonable that you answer them.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

Sadly, I think my chances of getting anything out of these – even for them to correct the name of the constituency – are pretty remote. There is a wider issue about how the BBC handles complaints. As a public service, it ought to be better than the typical newspaper; instead it is considerably worse. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently and can feel a campaign percolating in my brain.

Finally, I should belatedly link to this article on, with full marks to Stephen Tall for taking Andrew Pierce to task.

On 23 May 2009, I wrote a complaint to the BBC regarding the above mentioned article using the BBC News’ Newswatch service ( To date I have received no reply.

On the same day, I issued similar complaints to the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, both of which were replied to within seven days. I am therefore writing to complain about two matters:

a) The content of this specific web page.

b) The way in which the BBC handles comments and complaints.


See NOTE 1 regarding my original complaint, and NOTE 2 regarding my complaint to the Daily Telegraph. Since writing these complaints, I have had a reply from the Daily Telegraph who wrote the following:

“Thank you for your email of 27 May 2009, which was addressed to telegrapheditorial.

“While we note your comments, we believe that the above article was written and in a way that will be readily understood by our readers. The facts are not in dispute and Jo Swinson was given full opportunity to respond. Following publication we were contacted by a Liberal Democrat press officer on Ms Swinson’s behalf. This was only to draw our attention to part of a headline on the website version of the article, whichwas then modified as requested. The matter was resolved amicably and no other issue was raised.

“We are satisfied that there has been no breach of the PCC Code of Practice.

“Yours sincerely,

“Rhidian Wynn Davies
“Consulting Editor”

The Guardian also issued the following correction regarding their own coverage of the story (

“In the category Cheapest claims, we stated without qualification that cosmetics were included in receipts submitted by Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire (23 May, page 6). Jo Swinson has denied claiming for these makeup items, telling the Telegraph, which originally reproduced one of her receipts, that the cosmetics appeared on a Boots receipt for other items she was claiming.”

The nature of my complaint to the Telegraph and Guardian was different to that of the BBC in that, while I assert the newspapers had both written misleading articles (something which the Guardian now acknowledges), neither of them had issued factual inaccuracies, the BBC article was factually wrong. To reiterate: the BBC story states that Jo Swinson claimed for “eyeliner, a £19.10 ‘tooth flosser’ and 29p dusters” while the original Telegraph article merely states that they appeared on receipts that were submitted. Indeed, the Telegraph makes it clear that not all the items on the receipts were claimed for.

I would still object to the BBC using the same precise wording in the Telegraph article as it is misleading (why is it newsworthy that an MP purchased makeup out of her own pocket). But the BBC, to date, have not even gone that far.


I have always been critical of the way the BBC handles complaints. At the top end of the scale it has programmes such as Points of View and Radio Four’s Feedback which appear to exist for no better reason than to provide BBC producers and opportunity to condescendingly explain why viewers and listeners are wrong to complain about their programmes.

Since the rise of the internet, the BBC has failed to use this opportunity to make itself more accountable and responsive to complaints, even ones of a purely factual basis.

To take my specific complaint as an example, as a minimum I should have right to the following basic service in terms of handling my complaint:


If a direct email address is not an option, I should have been able to upload supporting documents.

I should have received an acknowledgement that the message sent via the web form had been sent, including a copy of the original complaint for reference (I anticipated this on this occasion).

I should be able to track the progress of the complaint online and be able to see if it is still being processed and what the conclusion has been.

If any correction is made, the website in question should include an acknowledgement that it has been revised.

Most decent complaints services in the commercial sector provide this level of service as a matter of routine.

In my case, I have no evidence that my complaint has been dealt with at all. While the picture of Jo Swinson has been corrected (which I only mentioned as an aside), the fact that her constituency name has been wrongly listed has not. While I would content that all of my complaint is purely of a factual nature, the question of her constituency’s name is surely beyond doubt (for the record, there are three similarly named constituencies: Dunbartonshire East, Dunbartonshire West and Dumbarton)? I certainly have never received any acknowledgement.

It is not clear from the website whether I should use the “Newswatch” section in the first instance or use this service as a matter of course. I assumed that Newswatch should be used in the first instance while a formal complaint such as this should only followed if I was not happy with the initial response. The BBC website does not clarify this and it is most confusing. It would appear that complaints issued via “Newswatch” are not dealt with at all. I can only hope that complaints made via this route will be treated with more respect.

So, irrespective of the conclusion of my specific complaint, I am asking you to look into how the BBC might better handle complaints in future.

Yours faithfully,

James Graham


Original Complaint Submitted on 23 May 2009:

I am writing with regard to your section on MPs expenses, and specifically your coverage of Jo Swinson MP’s alleged claims (

I have already written to the Telegraph about this story (see below). Your article goes significantly further than the Telegraph article. The Telegraph at all times are careful not to actually claim that Jo Swinson MP claimed cosmetics on expenses, merely that cosmetics had appeared on receipts that had been submitted to the Fees Office (nonetheless, I would still contest that this is highly misleading – and almost certainly mislead you).

By contrast, the BBC article baldly asserts – without any substantiation whatsoever – “The Dumbartonshire [sic] East MP, the youngest in the Commons, put a series of small claims on expenses, including eyeliner, a £19.10 ‘tooth flosser’ and 29p dusters. ”

It is wholly unacceptable of the BBC to republish – and indeed embellish – claims made by a commercial newspaper without seeking to substantiate them first. This isn’t journalism, this is engaging in a game of Chinese whispers. I would therefore ask that you publish a retraction to this story, together with an apology to Jo Swinson.

If I do not hear from you within seven days, I will take this matter further with the BBC Trust.

Yours faithfully,

James Graham

PS As an aside, I should point out that Jo Swinson’s constituency is called East Dunbartonshire and that photograph you are illustrating this story with is of Alan Beith and Diane Maddock.


Complaint to Daily Telegraph, 23 May 2009:

Dear Mr Lewis,

With regards to your article “Tooth flosser, eyeliner and 29p dusters for the makeover queen” (page 6 of Daily Telegraph #47,888, Thursday 21 May 2009):

First of all, I would like to remind you of the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice – of which the Daily Telegraph professes to follow:


“i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

“ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.”

The aforementioned article contains a number of misleading statements. A superficial reading of the article would lead the casual reader to assume that the record of Jo Swinson MP’s expenses claims demonstrate that she had claimed for makeup and dusters. However, a more careful reading reveals the following information:

1 that although receipts containing those items had been submitted, there is no actual evidence that these specific items had been claimed for. Indeed, this claim is explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself and no evidence has been brought forward to give us cause to doubt this whatsoever.

2 furthermore, that in at least one case the items which had been claimed for were clearly marked by an asterisk. In the case of the eyeliner and dusters this was not the case.

3 the claim that Jo Swinson is ‘known in Westminster for the attention she pays to her appearance’ is entirely unsubstantiated and innuendo-laden. There is nothing remarkable about a Member of Parliament not wishing to look unkempt; indeed they would be open to criticism if they did so.

4 the headline epithet ‘makeover queen’ is equally unsubstantiated. No-one appears to have called Jo Swinson this apart from the article’s author, Rosa Prince, herself.

5 the page design is clearly intended to convey the idea that Jo Swinson has had numerous ‘makeovers’ – yet the photographs provided are merely pictures of her looking slightly different over a period of eight years.

The article, ostensibly about MPs’ expenses, is clearly intended to convey the impression that Jo Swinson has been buying makeup and charging taxpayers. Given that the article itself contains no evidence whatsover to indicate that this might be the case, the article is certainly misleading. Including a denial by Jo Swinson does not go anywhere near to correcting this as it works on the ‘no smoke without fire principle.’ Furthermore, nowhere in the article do you state Jo Swinson’s impeccable record in calling for MPs’ expenses to be published and for the system to be reformed.

The ultimate effect of this article is to smear an MP with a strong track record of reform with the same brush as some of the worst offenders. This is a complete distortion.

I must ask you to publish a retraction of the article, making it clear that there is no evidence that Jo Swinson MP has claimed the cost of her makeup on expenses. If I do not receive a response from you within seven days I will take the matter further with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

The Fernandos expose a wider failure

This has become an incoherent babble but I was determined to finish it. My apologies.

The defection yesterday of the Fernando siblings, on one level, is quite easy to laugh off. If Chamali and Chandila are “senior” party members on the basis that they have failed to get elected to any prominent position within the party (to be fair, Chamali did get elected to the FPC, but resigned almost instantly), then I must be one of the most senior party members out there. Been a member for five minutes? Not elected to anything? Well, on that basis David Cameron wants to hear from you too!

The Fernandos activities over the past couple of years have been a breathtaking example of ambition blinding individuals to harsh reality. One got a sense that Chamali was really angry at not getting selected as the mayoral candidate and wouldn’t brook the quite reasonable argument that a man who has helped run a London-wide authority (in his case, the police) was better qualified. A similar arrogance ran through Chandila’s presidential candidacy like a stick of rock. The sense of entitlement was palpable; one almost got the impression one had intruded onto the set of some dynastic soap opera.

Once the laughter dies down however, the party needs to wake up to some home truths. Specifically, we really are failing get BAME candidates selected in winnable seats. In terms of gender balance, we are actually making good progress. Of our 25 most marginal seats, 10 selected candidates are women. Of the top ten, 4 are women. If you exclude Tory marginals on the basis that we are unlikely to take them, 6 out of 13 selected candidates are women. Clearly we could still make improvements in this area, and incumbancy will always dent our progress, but it could be a lot worse. However, none of them are from an ethnic minority (quite happy to stand corrected here).

And it isn’t just the Fernandos that are defecting. Obviously there was Saj Karim in 2007, but earlier this year there was Norsheen Bhatti. I tend to be pretty dismissive of Saj as he threw his toys out of his pram despite coming second in a list of candidates in a PR election. We could have won that second seat; he simply wasn’t prepared to take that chance which was pretty shoddy. Norsheen is different. Unlike the Fernandos, Norsheen had done her graft. I first knew her back in 1998 when she was on the LDYS Equal Opportunities Committee with me. She had fought two thankless elections, as the candidate for Battersea in 2005 and Brent East in 2001. Yes, Brent East. My understanding is (again, happy to be corrected) she was out of the country when Paul Daisley died in 2003. It must have been pretty galling for her to see us go on to win that by-election.

What concerns me is less the specifics of each individual defection and resignation but the trend (with apologies to Antony Hook, who seems to think we should only ever look at this problem at an atomic level). We don’t appear to have made any meaningful progress in terms of getting ethnic minority candidates in place. The vibes I have felt coming from the Ethnic Minority Lib Dems in recent years have been a growing sense of despair and frustration. Sometimes this has been aimed at the wrong targets (if targeted at all) and lacked a proper analysis, but it is no less worrying.

There seem to be two main problems here: one is simply a question of priorities while the other is more intractable. The first one is that we have serially failed to implement anything even vaguely resembling a coherent strategy in terms of encouraging, developing and supporting candidates from under-represented groups. The model we have successfully used for women in recent years, whilst under-funded, has delivered results. For the most part, it could be reapplied to encourage ethnic minority candidates or disabled candidates. It was broadly agreed that this would happen when Navnit Dholakia was president back in 2003, but as soon as Simon Hughes took over that agenda was scrapped while Simon spent years pursuing his own preferred solution of imposing ethnic-minority shortlists and quotas in urban ghettoes. Under Clegg, we have seen the development of this Diversity Engagement Group, which is welcome, but it has taken us a breathtakingly long time to get that far. Meanwhile, Clegg’s promise of a “leaders’ academy” still seems to be lost in the ether. Maybe, post-election, we will see more progress made on this, but that certainly did not happen after 2005.

The second, harder problem is how we do politics. Simply put, there are very few jobs out there that are tougher and less thankless than being a Lib Dem target seat candidate. That is true whether you are black or white, male or female. The male target seat candidates of my acquaintance are all pretty much working at it full time at largely their own expense and have been for a couple of years now. I have to be honest and admit that I don’t personally know any female target seat candidates – I do however know several former female target seat candidates, for the most part because of what a dreadful job it is.

Frankly, we shouldn’t treat people like this. It’s horrible. But to be honest, it is hard to see how we can afford not to treat people like this. We don’t have money to pay them a stipend or give them more support (let alone things like childcare) and if we reallocated funds from elsewhere, we would be forced to fight fewer seats (this applies to investing more in training and development as well, although you can at least make the argument that better trained candidates tend to be better fundraisers, etc.).

The flipside of this approach is that it predetermines specific kinds of candidates. By putting so much emphasis on local campaigning, we have helped fuel this obsession with parochialism. These days, if you can’t actually trace five generations of your family all being born in the constituency, you get labelled a carpetbagger (I exaggerate slightly). The Lib Dems did more than most to encourage this culture, but all the parties play this game these days. Clearly such an emphasis is bad news for candidates whose parents or grandparents are immigrants (furthermore, it is no coincidence that this emphasis on the “local” has gone hand-in-hand with the greatest period of centralisation in British history, but I’ve written about that before).

Finally, another factor tied up with this emphasis on the ground war is the unfortunate tendency to play ethnic minority communities like mindless cattle. This is one aspect of local politics where the bad habits were established by Labour rather than the Lib Dems but it has become ubiquitous nonetheless. All too often, political parties treat BME communities as an homogenous group. It has to be said that there are plenty of people within those communities who, for reasons of their own, are all too happy to play along. So it is that ‘elders’ and (usually self-appointed) ‘community leaders’ like to act as middlemen (and it does tend to be men), negotiating votes in return for favours. The result invariably leads to greater racial tensions and segregation. And out of the system arise a number of politicians from ethnic minority backgrounds who are used to playing this game and all too often have a totally unrealistic idea about how politics is played elsewhere. Alongside all this comes entryism (the practice of flooding local parties with members who don’t necessarily even know they’re joining and all too often don’t share the parties values with the aim of stitching up candidate selections). It leads us with curiosities such as Irfan Ahmed and is… quaint views about women ending up in the party (I like to think that Irfan can be saved from his illiberal views as he matures; the vast majority of them are founded in ignorance and I have to admit to having some stupid ideas of my own when I was 17. But he doesn’t half push it).

I’m not saying that all politicians from an ethnic minority background come with this sort of baggage or attitude. Far from it. A lot of people, particularly second and third generationers can’t stand this sort of culture. But all too often parties, and the Lib Dems in particular, tend to indulge this sort of ghetto politics rather than side with those individuals who are fighting for a better sort of participation and engagement. Ultimately the problem is that we don’t merely fail to train and support enough BAME candidates; we end up recruiting the wrong ones.

The solution to all this, and in part some of the problems raised by Charlotte Gore a couple of weeks ago, is much less emphasis on “ground war” campaigning in favour of the “air war.” The party needs to identify a stronger public identity and a clearer vision. This will become doubly crucial if we ever gain electoral reform for Westminster.

That however is glib and somehow I doubt anyone reading this will think that is a particularly new thing to say. Nor will it get away from the fact that the Tories have now adopted many of the party’s ground war techniques wholesale, thus making it crucual for us to be able to fight like with like. We are stuck in a tussle that we can’t afford to break free from. And yet the tussle itself is causing the party to become hollowed out, alienates our supporter base and discourages some of our brightest prospective MPs from even considering becoming a candidate. However bad these problems might be for the Tories and Labour, they are that much worse for a party in third place with no safe seats and much lower funding.

It seems to me that we face two unenviable choices: transform our strategic approach and risk destroying ourselves in the process, or carry on as we have been – at best making grindingly slow progress and at worst ending up going in reverse in the process. I happen to think that in the long term the former is more desirable. The prize is not merely a better politics but a system that doesn’t end up excluding so many people from becoming target seat candidates. Incrementalism has had its day and we need to move on. But it will take a brave leader (and future chief executive) to begin the process. Either way, there is simply no excuse for not sorting out a better training and support system for BAME candidates as a high priority.